Every World Cup features a "Group of Death," and this year that distinction falls on Group G. Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast are all capable of a deep tournament run, but only two will reach the knockout stages. In a tight group, all three will look to fatten up against the group's weak link, North Korea. Here's my breakdown.
No matter the venue or the roster, Brazil are consistently among the short list of World Cup favorites and 2010 is no different. Much has been made of coach Dunga's move away from the beloved "joga bonito" style in favor of a more rugged, ruthless approach, but if Brazil hoist the cup for the third time in 16 years, no one will complain. Goalkeepers are usually not a focal point of the Brazilian team, but in Inter Milan's Julio Cesar the Selecao have a keeper as sharp as any in the world. The midfield revolves around Kaka and Gliberto Silva and more attention will be paid to them in the absence of Ronaldinho. Even though the competition is stiff, Brazil are still the solid group favorites.
The qualifying campaign for Portugal was far from impressive. Only a late surge saw them through to South Africa, and a stunning 0-0 friendly against Cape Verde raised worries. But anytime one of the world's top players is on your team, there's reason for optimism. Cristiano Ronaldo is that man for Portugal, but recently he's performed better at the club level than for the national side. The loss of his former Manchester United teammate Nani, another training ground causality, weakens Portugal on the wing. A healthy dose of veteran leaders, including Deco and Ricardo Carvalho, sets up the strong possibility of a Spain-Portugal match in the round of 16.
You have to feel sorry for the Ivory Coast and their run of bad luck. For the second straight World Cup, they've been drawn in the Group of Death, having been slotted with Argentina and Holland four years ago. The bad breaks continued, literally, last week against Japan, when star striker Didier Drogba fractured his elbow. While the Elephants haven't completely ruled him out, if he does play his effectiveness will be limited. Without Drogba, though, Ivory Coast have some other big names, including Kolo and Yaya Toure and Drogba's Chelsea teammate, Salomon Kalou. The squad is backed by the veteran leadership of former England skipper Sven-Goran Eriksson, one of two Swedes coaching an African side.
Like the nation itself, not much is known about North Korea, but we do know any progress they make would come as a major surprise. Their World Cup got off to a rough start with some roster shenanigans, as they tried to sneak in an extra striker as goalkeeper #3. Among the players who are allowed to play an offensive role, Jong Tae-Se is the most dangerous.
Prediction: Prior to Drogba's injury, I was prepared to pick Brazil and Ivory Coast. While Drogba is a stud, I think the Elephants will find away to overcome the loss. Barely. Portugal and Ivory Coast play to a draw and finish level on points. The Elephants advance behind Brazil on goal differential.